We came to El Bolsón to do a short backpacking trip in Patagonia, drink locally made beer, and eat some of their famous fruits and chocolates. The trip we chose to do is the Cerro Hielo Azul (Blue ice mountain) down here in the mountains of Patagonia.
We headed out of town to get to the the campground at Rió Azul to spend the night and then begin our trek in the morning. We thought the book said it was 3 km, and didn’t realize the book actually said it was three hours to hike about 11 km. A few kilometers down the dusty gravel road, we realized that in fact we had about 10 more km to hike in the hot summer sun, so we decided to hitch a ride from one of many of the families driving out to the river. We quickly got a ride, and soon thereafter the truck we were riding in slowed for another hitch-hiker. To everyone’s surprise in the back of the now full truck, the hitch-hiker was an Englishman we had met the day before on the bus ride from Puerto Montt to Bariloche. We (ok, the truck did all the work) made the long, dusty drive in the hot sun to the Rió Azul and our campground for the night.
The next day we woke up at our riverside campsite, packed up, and headed down the trail. We hiked a short distance along the river, and then came to the first of many rickety suspension bridges. The sign at the bridge said “one at a time only”, and from the shaky look of the structure and the many missing or broken planks, it seemed best to follow those rules. After crossing the bridge without falling into the river, we then begin a long steep climb up the forested hillside. The forest were the beechwood (coigue and lenga) forests similar to those we saw in Chile. However, there are also cordilleria cypress (they look like cedar) and more pine trees intermixed with the hardwoods.
We eventually got to the top of the long, steep climb, and had lunch on top of a ridge with excellent views of the valley and El Bolsón below (towards the east), and views up the to the Andes mountains and towards Chile (towards the west). We had some fresh bread, cheese and raspberry jam from El Bolsón below (kind of like cheesecake, when you’re really hungry) as we took in views of the rocky mountain peaks and ice fields way above. El Bolsón is well known for locally grown berries, and the raspberry jam was excellent and well worth the small amount of extra weight. As the afternoon summer sun heated up, we continued uphill in the shade of the forest after lunch, eventually coming to the cool Rió Teno (a small stream).
From our scenic lunch spot we followed a nice glacial stream to the Refugio Heilo Azul, and our campground for the night. The refugio is way up in a beautiful meadow in a glacial cirque, surrounded by rocky crags, small ice fields with water from melting glaciers tumbling down to form small, cold streams in the meadows below. You can hear the tumbling water as you look up at the mountains in awe. The water is ice cold, and quickly cools you down and makes your toes numb. We set up our tent in the camping area and headed to the wooden refugio for a home-cooked meal.
We have a better understanding of the refugio system, so now we eat diners at the refugios (to reduce the food weight in our packs) and eat our own food for breakfast and lunch. The couple who ran the refugio had two small children and had made a full playground out of rough-hewn wood toys and play sets. After some time to relax and soak our tired feet in the cold glacial streams, we had some sandwiches and shared some beer made at the refugio with the Englishmen, sharing tips on great places to visit.
The next day, after a breakfast of tea and oatmeal, we crossed the Rió Teno and made another steep climb up for a long while. We got to another great view spot to have lunch, look over the valley of El Bolsón, and from our new vantage point, look into the deep gorge where the Rió Azul emerges from the mountains to spill out into the flat valley below our lunch spot. The trail then plunged down the side of the gorge to the river at the bottom of the gorge. The trail was very steep, dusty and treacherous. The sun was hot and there was little shade as we clambered down the long, long descent. When we finally made it to the bottom of the gorge, the trail turned to follow the Rió Azul at the bottom of the gorge past appealing, turquoise swimming holes.
We quickly hiked to our next refugio to unload our packs and get down to dip into the cool river. It’s summer down here, and it is darn hot. The cool water was a great relief and helped wash off some the trail dust and sweat from out long hike. The refugio is a nice farm, with orchards and a huge lawn for camping on, which also served as a pasture for small herd of sheep who came down from the hills to graze on the grass among the tents. That night, we enjoyed hot showers and stew (with vegetables grown at the farm), more home-brew, and plums from the orchard.
On our last day, we hiked down the trail, over two more rickety suspension bridges, and out to the main gravel road to catch a bus. We waited about three hours for the bus, and we thought we would be stranded on the lonesome road with only a few crackers left for food. Better late than never, we were delighted to eventually see the old bus rumble around the corner of the gravel road. When we got back to town, we ate 18 empenadas over the course of 4 hours (six from the street market, six at a restaurant and six at an empenada bakery- 12 were eaten by Jason).